Not drinking in El Bolsón

Argentina 2007

In a bar in El Bolsón, Río Negro province, we try a local tradition: definitely not drinking the night before the election

Nadia and me, walking home through El Bolsón, a little worse for wear, shall we say

Drunk. Remember kids, alcohol is bad for you

The barman was enjoying himself: for every beer he poured for a customer he had one himself. This bar had been here for fifty years, he said, and he’d been running it for forty. His glasses sat low on his nose but from the unfocused stare I don’t think he was using them.

There was a motley collection of locals huddled around the bar. Some were sitting silent, drinking their post-work beer; others were in groups, discussing women.

We played pool; Nadia beat me. In front of fifteen men. We played table football; Nadia beat me. It was fairly humiliating.

Perhaps because of my woeful display we were challenged to table football. We knew it would be on our tab, not theirs, but that was all right.

The table was ancient, made of cast iron. The players were very heavy — too heavy, Nadia said, for her to do her tricks. No matter, we won.

We challenged them to pool. We won. We were on form. We celebrated with more beer.

A little while later there was a loud knock on the door. I looked over and for the first time realised the door was locked and the curtains drawn.

Hide your drinks! said a fellow drinker. What for? we asked.

It turned out the provincial elections were the next day; it was illegal to drink both the night before and the day of the election.

We were in a lock-in.

Everyone hid their drinks. Manuel, the barman, put on his best ‘I’m not drunk’ face and went to the door.

Is anyone drinking in here? the man asked. Of course not, slurred Manuel, you know it’s the election tomorrow. We’re just chatting and playing pool … and stuff. Definitely not drinking. Manuel might have wobbled a little.

The man sniffed, but seemed convinced. He left us to out sobriety.

We talked a little about the politics of Río Negro province and celebrated breaking the law with more beer. Manuel said if we wanted to drink tomorrow we should knock on the back door and he would let us in. One of the locals, Horacio, said if we popped in at two he’d drive us to the nearby lake. We said we would. (And we did.)

At one a.m. we stumbled out into the streets of El Bolsón and meandered back to our cabaña. It was raining heavily and our walk took us past snarling dogs and over a rickety wooden bridge. But we didn’t really notice.